My earliest memory is when I learned to read. I was three. I sat in a tiny rocking chair in my grandma’s house with Dick and Jane. And it just clicked. I didn’t know how I read the words, but I did.
In kindergarten a teacher asked, “Who knows what elamenopee means?” I could already read long books but I didn’t know what I was singing with L-M-N-O-P.
In first grade, I told the teacher I can already read. She gave me the dictionary and told me to read it. I read it. She asked me what it meant. I said I didn’t know. To me it was not obvious that reading and understanding went together. Now I know autistic girls have poor reading comprehension.
The only time I felt like it mattered was fifth grade when I got put in the gifted program. We read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I spent three weeks trying to understand the first two pages and was relieved to be removed from the program.
My first semester in college my professor announced I got the highest grade in a class of 200 kids where I was the only freshman. I didn’t do any of the reading. At some point I realized there is no correlation between reading the material and understanding the material.
Those famously long books like Anna Karenina and One Hundred Years of Solitude? I threw them away.
I like a book I can read in one day. When I walk into a book store, I shop the spines. I know the authors who write short — because I feel like they write for me. Jamaica Kincaid. Sandra Cisneros. Susan Minot. Susana Kaysen. Who cares that teachers sprinkle these books across eighth-grade reading lists?
I love telling you about books because I love telling you about words. But the price of that is autism — reading words early cost me reading faces later.
Autistic brains are full of imbalances. For example, our brains are extraordinary at retrieving past events that happened to us. But just like our lack of executive function means we have a flat hierarchy for our to do lists, we also have a flat hierarchy for our memories — we have categories rather than chronology.
Now I see why nitpickers say I’m not a reliable narrator. It’s not about reliability it’s about relatability — their memories don’t match my patterns.
Neurotypical people have the type of autobiographical memory that creates a chronological unfolding of events. Autistic people have episodic memory which is nonlinear.
In literature, autobiographical memory is canonized in the narrative arc. We describe that like epic (Odyssey), philosophical discussion (War and Peace), or the Great American Novel (Moby Dick).
Nonlinear writing by men commands serious words like stream-of-consciousness (As I Lay Dying) or just The Longest (Proust). Nonlinear writing by women receives diminutive labels like flash fiction (Lydia Davis) and slice-of-life (Annie Ernaux).
This is why, when Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I cried. The spines of her books are thin. Her chapters are short and the sentences slide across the white of the page.
The Nobel committee commended Annie Ernaux’s courageous approach to personal memory. I hear this as a call to arms for autistic women to write our stories.
Because there is no body of work from women describing the autistic experience. We have not known about autism long enough. Annie Ernaux reflects our sensibilities but not our context. She provides a blueprint and the literary legitimacy, but it’s up to us to create a canon of consciously autistic literature for the next generation to look to as they grow from autistic girls into autistic women.
The more memories we have the more compelled we should feel to write them down. And we up to the task. Because just like autistic men dominate math, autistic women dominate memoir.